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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


Response to Renee Marlin-Bennett

Renee Marlin-Bennett and I were colleagues for many years in a professional school of international affairs, where policy prevails as a frame of reference. We often talked about methods in relation to theory, and she’s right about the User’s Manual. But we never talked about policy or policies; indeed I almost never did with anyone - a self-denying ordinance. But after so many years in Washington I wondered whether anyone ever had a clear idea what kind of ‘thing’ policies are. The closer one looks, the less one sees. After leaving Washington, I tried to pin down that thing called policy specifically through an assessment of speech acts emphasizing declaratives (2001, reprinted in Onuf 2013, Ch. 7). And now Renee actually does an analysis of a ‘policy speech’, all the while using the term policy as if it is obvious what it is. While such speeches are laced with expressives, are policies anything more than some few linked declarative speech acts?

When I first encountered speech act theory, I found in John Searle’s scheme for classifying speech acts (1969, Ch. 1) key support for a more general scheme classifying modes and manifestations of social construction. This more general scheme offers three categories for sorting through the stuff of the world, gives World of Our Making its architecture (see the Synoptic Table, 291) and continues to inform the way I think about social relations. This general scheme is not everyone’s cup of tea. Hayward Alker, who was Renee’s mentor, my dear friend, and a mathematician by training, considered it an exercise in Pythagorean mysticism.

Be that as it may, I still think the use to which I put Searle’s scheme is plausible in its own terms and its extension to the classification of rules an insight that stands up to inspection. Searle’s scheme offers five ‘classes’ of speech acts - assertive, directive, commissive, expressive and declarative. With Searle, I take the first three to exhaust the possible ways we can fit words to the world (though I should point out that for Searle, the world is already there, while I take words to make the world what we think it is). Each class elicits distinctive responses from hearers such that we can attribute to each a force (a weasel word for cause) and thus a more-or-less consistent effect on social relations.

By contrast, declarative speech acts are instances of assertives, directives and commissives that have particular force by virtue of institutional setting. Searle was content to specify the heightened effect of a declaration by reference to a marriage ceremony It is, however, easy enough to show that directives and commissives can also be turned into declaratives: I declare (on my ‘authority’ as a scholar) that legal rules are declarative directives. By the same token (in this case, the authority of any lawyer I might wish to consult), a contract is a pair of commissive speech acts rendered in a declarative form.

My inquiry into that thing called policy led me to policy statements considered as ‘declarations of intention.’ I have since become more cautious in using the term intention because we can never know what anyone’s intentions might be (even our own). At the time, I pointed out that some statements of intention are intentionally deceptive and all such statements could be construed as strategic moves of the sort that Thomas Schelling had a particular interest in. In the rest of the essay, I examined agreements (as against conventions), acts of consent, oaths and pledges as speech acts, variously assertive, directive and commissive, and as strategic moves taking advantage of the added force of declarations. To the best of my spotty knowledge, no one else had then or has since subjected strategic interaction, or rational choice more generally, to this sort of disassembly

Of course, rational choice theory gains its power by radically simplifying the world - by populating it with mechanical calculators of the costs and benefits, complications and uncertainties, of any available course of action. I have always found it an invaluable starting point in explaining how people respond to rules. But it does leave people’s feelings out of the picture, and I am fairly accused of doing so more generally in my work. (Here see my response to Paul Kowert’s essay) When Renee says that she is interested in motivations (a term I much prefer to intentions) and I am not, she is effectively saying just this. She goes on to identify expressions of emotion in policy statements.

Renee quotes from and then analyzes a major address of President Obama’s to make her case. In the quoted text, declarative speech acts are all over the place, perhaps motivated by and seeking to elicit strong feelings, but also signaling authority relations. There are no expressive speech acts. Nor, given the context, would I expect any beyond the usual formulaic conventions, such as the ones concluding President Obama’s speech: “May God bless you. May God bless our men and women in uniform. And may God bless the United States of America.” Indeed most expressives are truncated speech acts of some other class so conventionalized as to empty them of emotional content or motivational force.

What we do find is a trove of metaphors, and in these Renee finds compelling evidence in favor of her thesis. I have myself come to see metaphors much as she does - easily remembered, affectively rich, suggestively open to extension (Onuf 2010a; 2010b). Although they too often become lifelessly conventional, they are capable of being refreshed as conveyors of emotion. The art of rhetoric goes where speech act theory leaves off.


Onuf, Nicholas Greenwood. 2001. “Speaking of Policy.” In Vendulka Kubalkova, ed., Foreign Policy in a Constructed World, pp. 77-95. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

-2010a. “Fitting Metaphors: The Case of the European Union.” Perspectives: Review of

International Affairs 18 (1): 63-76.

-2010b. “Escavando a ‘Comunidade Internacional’: Por uma Arqueologia do Conhe-

cimento Metaforico.” Contexto International 32 (2): 253-296.

- 2013. Making Sense, Making Worlds: Constructivism in Social Theory and International

Relations. Abingdon: Routledge.

Searle, John. 1969. Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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